US senators ask for UN action in Uzbekistan

A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday asked the Bush administration to consider whether the US could take action via the United Nations if Uzbekistan does not allow an independent investigation into last month's massacre at Andijan.

In a letter to the Bush administration, four Republican senators - John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Sununu and Mike DeWine - and two Democrats - Patrick Leahy and Joseph Biden - said the US should reconsider its relationship with Uzbekistan in light of the May 13 massacre, in which hundreds of civilians were reportedly killed by Uzbek forces.

"Particularly after freedom's advances in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, we believe that the United States must be careful about being too closely associated with a government that has killed hundreds of demonstrators and refused international calls for a transparent investigation," the senators wrote.

The US, which has boosted military cooperation with Uzbekistan since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, is currently considering transforming a temporary military base into a permanent installment. Some State Department officials, however, believe the US should distance itself from the regime of President Islam Karimov to avoid the appearance that the US is supporting some undemocratic countries while urging for the spread of democracy in others.

In the letter to Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, the senators ask whether the administration knows which Uzbek forces participated in the crackdown and whether any received US military training. US-based human rights investigators are looking into allegations that US-trained Uzbek forces may have participated in the massacre. The Pentagon last week said they had no evidence to substantiate those claims.

The senators also urged the Bush administration to consider the repercussions of building a permanent base in Uzbekistan, and asked whether the US is exploring alternative military facilities in neighbouring countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in order to provide the US with more flexibility to alter its relationship with Uzbekistan.

"We appreciate that these are difficult questions that cut to the heart of our relationship with the government in this strategically important region," the senators wrote. "But we also believe that, in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre, America's relationship with Uzbekistan cannot remain unchanged."

Human Rights Watch this week called on the Bush administration to halt negotiations with Uzbekistan about a permanent military base. In a report on the crackdown, the group argues that most of the people killed were not Islamic terrorist as the Uzbek government alleges but in fact civilian protesters.

"The Uzbek authorities are trying to whitewash this massacre," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

"Our investigation is a first step towards setting the record straight. But only a full-fledged international investigation, with access to official records, can give a true picture of the tragic events in Andijan."

Separately, the spokesperson for the US Department of State, Sean McCormack, said on Wednesday the department had been briefed on the Human Rights Watch report. He said reliable eyewitness accounts had established that hundreds of innocent civilians were killed but the department would not label the incident as a massacre.

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